Oct 05 31 2005


Our best wishes to the crew at Southampton, where a major fire destroyed one of the computer research buildings over the weekend. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Professor Wendy Hall, head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science, said it was an extremely difficult time for both staff and students and that it could take some before they would have the complete picture of the situation.

We're having lots of fun, polishing and planning for Tinderbox Weekend!

In Seattle, we're going to be at the Watertown, right by the University. Free high-speed internet, free loaner bicycles, the whole Seattle experience.

In San Francisco, we're back at the Rex. Great location, great lobby, unusually well-informed concierges.

Tinderbox Weekend

It's going to be great.

Trying to decide which to attend? They'll be different. In Seattle, we'll be spending more time on advanced topics. Ryan Holcomb will look at getting things done with Tinderbox. We'll explore all the new stuff in agents and rules. And we'll talk a good deal about sharing notes through weblogs and news sites. In San Francisco, we have more time and so we'll have better coverage for beginners, including Elin Sjursen's patented running start. Lots of talks about applications -- in research, in tech writing, in management, in health care. More soon.!

We went to see Bruce last night. Much fun: he's a guy who likes his work. Dream Baby Dream, the last encore, was a remarkable example of pure performance energy.

In a recent New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl speculated that difficult art (he's thinking of the graphic novel) is inherently for the young:

The difficulty of graphic novels limits their potential audience, in contrast to the blissfully easeful, still all-conquering movies, but that is not a debility; rather, it gives them the opalescent sheen of avant-gardism. Avant-gardes are always cults of difficulty—Cubism, “The Waste Land”—by which a rising generation exploits its biological advantages, of animal health and superabundant brain cells, to confound the galling wisdom and demoralize the obnoxious sovereignty of age.

People used to assume that comic books were dumbed-down books with pictures to aid the marginally literate; it's refreshing to see this appreciation of the way images can make the work more ergodic.

Yes, Espen, if you're reading this, that sentence goes out especially to you. Let's face it, reader, you stumbled over ergodic, didn't you? A little? Admit it. I stumbled, too. If you're a new media expert, you know that ergodic describes art that requires work from the reader. But can work be more ergodic? You know, I've got a degree in Chemistry around here somewhere and, unlike most new media people, I spent an entire semester learning Thermodynamics (though Peter Thomspon might still have a contrary opinion on that particular subject) and while I think I understand the concept of the ergodic trajectory of a system in phase space I have absolutely no idea whether something can be more ergodic. The phrase is almost a google whack, and those who have boldly gone before include Julianne Chatelaine and Stanislaw Lem, so either way I'm in good company.

Anyway, Bruce is a fine musician and he's always been a terrific performer, and his songs are always very fine, but nothing new holds a candle to the stuff he wrote back in the day.

And Bronx's best apostle stands with his hand on his own hardware:
Everything stops,
You hear five quick shots.
The cops come up for air.

As all who know me well will eagerly attest, my customary disposition is bright and sunny at all times, and never more so than when deadlines loom and the world is filled with tricksy bugs and tedious errands, when bills are plentiful and an abundance of forms wait to be filled out.

What I really want to find some time to do, I think, is to fire up City of Heroes, put on the headphones, and crank up the volume on something long and more than somewhat angry. The B-minor Mass, I think, would do just fine to accompany the violent arrest of an extraordinary number of minor miscreants. (If the Vatican hadn't toyed with the idiotic anti-Kerry communion campaign, we might all have been spared Scooter's treason and compulsory Intelligent Design lessons. The extra anger from this reflectiion might be worth a few extra hit point.s) The mordant angst of the Kyrie, at superhuman volume, should go well with the supernatural post-apocalyptic sunsets of the ruins of Paragon City.

OK, it's a little Clockwork Orange, but when you're blue, maybe it's time to see red. I wonder: is it common to craft your own sound track?

It turns out I'm going to be in Brussels in mid-December. Surprise!

If you're in the general area and would like to arrange something -- a lecture, maybe, or even a Tinderbox weekend -- I'd love to talk about it.

Oct 05 28 2005


A year ago, I was writing about a fine bit of political new media that seemed poised to change the world.

But these are the times that try men's souls, and right now we're either witnessing the liberation of a great nation or the foundation of a great resistance movement that will -- no doubt after struggle and sacrifice -- defeat ignorance, superstition, and greed to free that nation and rescue the world.

Three days more.

It didn't happen as we'd hoped, of course. But today we're waiting for the first indictments. One day more.

Stuart Moulthrop's Engelbart-Award winning paper, "What The Geeks Know", is now online (pdf).

Constructing a new basis for literacy in the archive might permit us to move beyond distinctions between production and reception (writing and reading, in the old idiom) that seem increasingly inappropriate today. In terms of hypertext research, it might encourage further development of a thread that still seems somewhat neglected in our field: descriptive and ethnographic studies of user populations, especially in contexts that include production as well as reception.

Rereading this, I heard a resonance with Merholz's recent despair over UI work that treats the user as a hapless victim.

The current New Yorker has a nifty story by Adam Gopnik on Winslow Homer. Don't miss it. (Not online yet)

On the way to Rochester the other week, we stopped at The Clark for a superb, varied show of Winslow Homer paintings, drawings, and woodcuts. It was the first time I'd seen his Harper's woodcuts treated seriously; Gopnik argues they're actually stronger than his paintings.

Yesterday, I took a brief break from polishing software (we've got two late betas almost ready to leave the building) to subdue some evil-doers in City of Heroes. Coincidentally, yesterday they rolled out a major update, so City of Heroes was new.

First observation: I've come to believe in light documentation; people hate to pay for things they don't use, and it's easy to spend $50 per user on reference manuals that most customers will never open. But this was extreme: entire features and function sets were undocumented. Suddenly, you got salvage when you subdued bad guys. What is salvage? Did you notice a new inventory tab in the interface? What do you do with salvage?

Second observation: some details -- exactly how much damage your flaming arrow does, exactly how much endurance your first aid consumes -- were changed for play balance, and the chat channel was absolutely full of rabidly angry players. The principle, I think, is that people felt they owned the abilities of their heroes, and that something they owned had been stolen

As I understand it, the play balance issue stems, in part, from creeping inflation: high-level characters are giving their low-level friends so much influence -- the currency of City of Heroes -- that it's unbalancing the game. The developers didn't want to simply devalue the influence or tax away everyone's excess wealth, but people are upset anyway.

Third observation: angry users -- especially when they happen to be petulant kids -- are tough. The game provides those angry users with a built-in broadcast channel and an audience. It's got to be a headache for HQ. My comments on comments apply in spades.

Fourth observation: I thought at the time that it was a real mistake for the game developer not to have a spokesperson (or 20) live on the chat channels in order to balance the angry villagers. But a low profile might have been the right answer: sometimes, you can't beat the hecklers.

My latest shipment of books just arrived in the mail. I opened one I've been anticipating last night. It's off to a good start.

But why did I order this particular book? Who told me to read it? Somehow, I've already forgotten. I wish I'd made a note!

Oct 05 27 2005

White Sox

The White Sox win the series! Who would have thunk it. All the sports shows this morning are talking about the Sox fans and the Cubs fans, those armies of the patient. Oddly, they miss two key points.

These Sox are strangely like that last Sox team to win the pennant, the hitless wonders. The story of the White Sox was, for many years, pretty much the story of the modern Boston Red Sox: they were for many years a good team that was consistently beaten by very good teams and by a Yankee dynasty. They broke through to the pennant in '59, of course, but the hitless wonders turned out to be a simple fluctuation, a second-place team on a streak. And that, I suspect, is what we saw this year: a pretty good team that did pretty well and that will be remembered as something that happened between the Twins and the Indians.

The Cubs, on the other hand, used to be truly awful. Year after year, the Cubbies defined badness in just about every facet of baseball. They were a combination of the bad aspects of the Nationals, the Royals, and the Tigers. They were hopeless and hapless and absurd; the White Sox won (or nearly won) and the Cubs lost. But the Cubs had a nicer park, and Cubs fans learned to appreciate baseball because they sure didn't have much to cheer about.

I started out in the Sox camp Joel Horlen! Juan Pizarro! Gary Peters! Ward to Buford to McCraw, round the horn. Al Weiss! By '64 or '65, though, Professor Hannaford had drawn me into the Cubs orbit, the land of sunlight and ivy and connoisseurship.

Another thing to remember: the whole North Side/South Side division they talk about on the TV is coded language for a complex of ethnic and social affinities that once were so obvious that they were unmentionable and that, with a century of abrasion and enlightenment rubbing at their edges, are now almost forgotten. Comiskey Park stood in an immigrant community. Hull House was not far away. There were lots of poor people -- Eastern Europeans, mostly -- in the neighborhood. Even in my childhood, they had lines at Comiskey for kosher hot dogs because they made money that way.

In time, immigrants got old, their kids got richer, the South side became home to lots of Black people from the South where there wasn't that much baseball (and where the Cardinals were the home team anyway). As a result, the Cubs -- who found themselves in a part of town that started out Irish and Swedish and attracted lots of Asian Americans (many fleeing California's camps after the war) and Latin Americans -- would play bad ball and still outdraw the contending Sox, year after year.

Most teams have a Beloved Player: the Sox are a weird exception. Ernie Banks for the Cubs: let's play two. Hank Greenberg for the Tigers, then Kaline. Willie Mays, of course. Ted. Mickey. Stan Musial. You know 'em all. But who is the Sox hero of yore? Cap Anson is a long time ago. Shoeless Joe was a cheater, and also a long time ago. Minnie Minoso, I guess, is the man.


Last night I worked late. On the way home, I grabbed a butternut squash; the squash bin looks great this time of year and though squash is a mystery to me, Cooks has a nice-looking recipe for butternut squash risotto as a main course.


Some things to remember for next time:

  • "Serves four as a main course" is optimistic when you're eating at a fashionable 9:30. Of course, there were only to of us, but there wasn't nearly as much left over as I expected.
  • Cooks discovered that, instead of adding broth in half-cup increments and stirring continuously for a half hour, you can dump three of the four cups of broth at once, stir occasionally, and everything still works.
  • The recipe uses 1.5 cup of wine, chiefly to get enough acid to balance the squash's sweetness. That's nice, though it sure makes a dent in the bottle.
  • The squash wasn't as sweet as I'd expected. That's not a bad thing entirely, but perhaps I might brown it more aggressively next time.
  • Cooks suggests that you sauté the seeds and fibers, dump those into the broth, and then strain the broth. Easy enough. One reason I made this is that I had some nice home-made chicken double-stock that was nearing its sell-by date. It's hard to disentangle the good stock from the added zap of the sautéed seeds.

Why am I telling you this? Partly, because Cook's is a fine thing to read, and a terrific insight into scientific thinking for everyone. Partly, because it's fun to talk about food, and there's a lot of food in the blogosphere right now.

And partly because I've been thinking about notes as a medium for conversation -- with yourself, with your future self, and with your colleagues. Maybe markets aren't conversations, but notes certainly are!

So I'm writing this for myself, later this winter when I'm looking for something hot and hearty to cook because the heating bills are so high that the thermostat is in the ice zone. And I'm writing this for the cooks and farmers and critics who always email me interesting ideas when I write about food, or (better yet) write those interesting ideas in their own weblogs. And maybe I'm writing this to get the whole question straight in my mind -- especially whether a meatless entrée excuses 1T of butter per serving.

You've got to write stuff down -- and you've got to be able to find it again. In other words, you need two places to write: one that's always with you and one that's permanent, searchable, and smart. The one that's always with you can be as simple as a Hipster or a Moleskine: it just has to be there. The permanent journal can be a carefully indexed desk journal or it can be Tinderbox: Tinderbox gives you agents and instant search and spatial hypertext and all, but it's not quite as physical and concrete as a desk journal. (XML will last, but you can't feel its permanence the way you can feel good leather and Amalfi paper)
Oct 05 26 2005



New at Eastgate (and cool!), we've got a shipment from England of NeoCase laptop sleeves. They're high-density, edge-reinforced Neoprene sheaths, tailored to fit each model of iBook and PowerBook computer.

A nice detail of these cases is that the zippers are protected by flanges, so they never touch your computer. The case has retractable handles, so you can carry it comfortably yet fold the handles away in your briefcase or daypack.

Tinderbox can't help you take notes if your notebook is back at home because you just didn't want to lug your big laptop case. Be prepared.

And it's just $29.95.

Tinderbox And Proofreading

Web sites -- especially densely linked sites -- are often built up of lots of small pages. And with Tinderbox, even those small pages are often assembled from bunches of indivudal notes. This is terrific for writers and editors, but proof readers often prefer to work with a lot of straight text -- not dozens of tiny little passages. And they often have strong preferences for the medium they edit: some insist on double-spaced paper copies, others swear by Microsoft Word.

I can't read proof, so it's all arcane to me. How can I keep the proof reader happy?

It turns out to be easier than I'd thought. First, we add a new agent to the Tinderbox document. It gathers everything that's published in the site -- but none of the boilerplate headers and footers.

#inside(archives) & Prototype=WebPage

Now, we give that agent a simple HTML export template that includes each of the notes it finds in turn


This goes through and adds each page, in turn, using a special template adapted for our proof reader:

<H2> ^title^ </H2> ^text^

This winds up creating a long, long HTML page that you'd never want to post but is perfect for importing into HTML. Apply a stylesheet so our proof reader gets the fonts, margins, linespacing, and everything else just the way the like it. Email to proof reader, or print it. You're done.

If we want, we can even add an information block in the proofReaderTemplate that adds metadata for the proof reader -- things you might want to know in house but won't publish. When was this passage written? Who revised it last? Has it been approved by the legal department? If the proof reader needs technical help, who is the right manager to contact?

In the early years of the 20th century, Turkey took bold measures to establish a secular state to replace to Ottoman Empire. One of those measures was to enforce use of the Turkish alphabet in place of Arabic; this law is now being turned against Kurds who use the outlawed letters Q and W.

Angela Thomas argues that the risk of flame wars in academic blogs is slight, and so my concerns that comments pollute weblog discourse are unfounded.

Update: Torill, reading this, concludes that I have recanted and now want comments. Elin (knowing I'm too curmudgeonly to yield so easily) observes that I've misled Torill: 'There is no way Mark would put comments on his blog.' Elin further observes that, if either Torill or I had comments, the discrepancy would be easier to clear up. But in fact the discrepancy wasn't difficult to fix: Torill wrote her post a little past midnight in Norway, Elin noticed the discrepancy at 8am this morning in Cambridge, and I'm writing this about three hours later at Eastgate Headquarters.

Jon Leavitt has an interesting blog post on using Getting Things Done to avoid getting things done. (Not doing things is sometimes the right thing to do, of course.)

Why does current American business writing assume that the people who make crucial decisions, affecting the fate of thousands and spending millions of dollars, are stupid?

Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points undertakes a commendable and necessary mission. It demonstrates that PowerPoint presentations don't need to be dull lists of bullet points against blue gradient backgrounds, accompanied by chart junk. It makes an intriguing argument for structuring business arguments as 3-act narratives in which the audience is invited to see itself as the protagonist.

It's not really a 3-act narrative: in Atkinson, there's no third act. Atkinson's narrative scheme is closer to a one-act play: we set the scene and establish the conflict, we describe the steps to be taken to address the conflict, and then we conclude with a resolution. We have 'Once upon a time' and we have 'Then, one day', but there's no time for the third act, 'There was one thing they had forgotten.'

Beyond Bullet Points is written in short, simple sentences. Diagrams make each point clear. Short sidebars reinforce the rules. A scenario brings the message home: we have a new job and the Board Of Directors wants a presentation right away that doesn't have boring bullet points and does convince them that the new ten million dollar marketing plan is sound.

All this is sound, as far as it goes. Atkinson's view of narrative is reductive -- it's not nearly as sophisticated as Brenda Laurel's Computers as Theater, which itself has been criticized for its training wheels. The approach is rigid, but after sitting through so many terrible presentations at conferences and trade shows, perhaps rigid guidelines are needed.

But need the sentences be so short? Must the instructions be so simple and plain? Must we reduce theory -- literary and scientific -- to simple declarative summaries without nuance or qualification? When did we declare war against the comma?

This isn't a particular fault of Atkinson -- and he deserves praise for possessing an argument instead of simply repeating the mechanics of the manual. It seems to be endemic in current American business writing. Assume a poorly educated reader. Hold their hand through the simplest program mechanics. Use short sentences. Omit raw data that might confuse or distract.

See the Board of Directors run. Run, Board! Run!

Whenever you print a page on your color laser printer, the printer automatically prints a nearly-invisible watermark that provides the serial number of that printer to law enforcement authorities.

Doesn't it make you feel safe to know that everything printed on your laser printer can be traced to you? This helps foil counterfeiters, of course. And maybe it could be used to detect terrorists. Or people who voted Democratic, or printed things in Arabic or Hebrew.

Of course, our government wouldn't do something like that, any more than American soldiers would torture prisoners or hold citizens without trial.

Doesn't this make you feel all secure?

Oct 05 21 2005


In the new Believer, Nick Hornby writes that "writing, especially writing a column, is all about tone." My tone is definitely off key, because while TEKKA isn't half bad (and a new issue will be out soon!) it hasn't got David Mamet concocting a confectionary etymology of copacetic that involves a house dick and a piece of furniture. Nor does it have a two-page graphic spread on the recent spate of books on golems: who knew? And it doesn't have Hornby on The Classics:

There comes a point in life, it seems to me, where you've got to decide whether you're a Person of Letters or merely someone who loves books, and I'm beginning to see that the book lovers have more fun. Persons of Letters have to read things like Candide or they're a few letters short of the whole alphabet; book lovers, meanwhile, can read whatever they fancy.

I picked up Candide because my publisher sent me a cute new edition, and though that in itself wouldn't have persuaded me, I flicked through it and discovered it was only ninety pages long. Ninety pages! Who knew, apart from all of you, and everybody else?

Oh, and there's a review of a new Carol Emshwiller collection. Something with David Sedaris. Oh, my.

In the old days (early this year), I think "Web 2.0" meant something -- something its proponents liked about a new family of responsive, simple web applications but couldn't quite express. Soon, though, is became vaporous. From Joel On Software's latest rant on architectural astronautics:

The term Web 2.0 particularly bugs me. It's not a real concept, It has no meaning. It's a big, vague, nebulous could of pure architectural nothingness.

Why do the memes and terms of our industry so quickly become abused? The corners of "Web 2.0" had been knocked off and the sides scratched and dented before we got the box unwrapped!

One reason is that the trade press stinks. The magazines are ignorant trend-followers, often relying on lazy reporters who favor their safe, pet sources who fill chairs at big companies. These sources, in turn, often hold onto their promotions mostly because they get their name in the trades; if A. B. Clump is cited for his opinions of Apple's strategy and the promise of Web 2.0, then he really must be an expert!

Tinderbox and Trade Shows

There's a lot of ferment this week at the Tinderbox Wiki. The best new addition is a big page on using Tinderbox at trade shows and conventions, TradeShowNotes.

Interesting Tinderbox sidebar: As I wrote this, I was anxious that someday we might have to move the Tinderbox wiki again to evade wikispam. Instead of using a web link that might break, I wrote a quick macro ^do(wiki,WikiWord) that generates the link. This saves typing now and also provides a level of indirection that will make it easy to fix things if the wiki picks up and moves.

Oct 05 20 2005

CNN: Disgusting

There may not be enough tents in the world to save the victims of the recent earthquakes from the oncoming winter. The US White House is apparently bordering on collapse (for which let us give thanks). A really big hurricane is headed for Florida, or somewhere, this weekend.

The CNN front page headlines include, among the top 6 stories:

Jennifer Aniston photographed kissing Vince Vaughn

I don't follow the news much. Is there some reason Jennifer Aniston shouldn't be kissing Mr. Vaughn?

Congratulations to the Journal of Digital Information on the release of the first issue from their new home, having navigated the move from Southampton to College Station, Texas.

In a small oversight, JODI (now in its sixth year) sent out email announcing the new issue, but forgot to include the URL.

In another small oversight, JODI sent me more than a hundred copies of the announcement.

This, incidentally, is actually a counter-argument for the 'internet stamp' approach to spam reduction. Yes, a small charge per email would put a brake on spam. But it would also exact a huge penalty for honest errors like this, where a server goes awry. We don't understand spam anyway: in particular, why do people send out spam ads that can't possibly attract buyers when it's just as easy to sell things that people might actually buy? T-shirts, pamphlets, food, charitable donations, advice on buying a radio for your new Mercedes: surely, more people would buy these than the Nigerian spam scam? There's something we've forgotten: cui bono?

Kathryn Cramer continues to break all sorts of new ground, serving as a sort of epicenter for a revolution in mapping and bringing news to the world. Her latest: there might not be enough tents in the world to shelter the survivors of the recent earthquakes.

Today, the official death toll has risen to 79,000. I expect it to go much higher, given the extent to which affected areas have not yet been reached and the living conditions of the survivors. Think about it: Not enough tents in the world. Meanwhile, the entire matter has fallen almost completely off the front page of the New York Times website.

Scientists are trained in back-of-the-envelope reasoning. You say, "we're gonna evacuate the SuperDome? OK. A bus holds maybe 100 people, I guess. And there are maybe 20,000 people there. That's 200 buses. Who has 200 buses? Sounds like they'd better call Greyhound. Now, where are you going to park them?" For some reason, the bureaucrats didn't; they went by The Book or they passed the buck or they waited for the experts and held press conferences to say that nobody expected to need 200 buses. Please.

There might not be enough tents in the world, but I bet there are enough Big Rolls Of Denim and sewing machines. Transport might be a problem...

A user points out that Mark Pilgrim's validator complains when HTML entities appear in the <title> of RSS feeds. This makes it hard to include diacritical marks and accents in titles.

I reread the RSS spec. Twice. I iChatted with the tech lead of a major aggregator. I still have no idea what should be done. (My aggregator doesn't mind the encoded entity....)

City of Heroes does an interesting job of working with gender -- a subject that you'd expect to hear more about from Warcraft theorists Jill and Torill. Your hero can be chosen from three basic categories: male, female, or huge -- the latter a covering mutant monsters with more-than-superheroic proportions.

Some random and naive observations:

  • There are a lot of female heroes.
  • Female heroes are not more obviously sexualized in appearance or behavior than male heroes. This might be a function of the TOS cops, but it's interesting anyway.
  • I haven't noticed any particular tendency for female heroes to follow traditionally-female or nurturing occupations (defender/medic, controller/magician). There are lots of female blasters and scrappers.
  • The game design generally emphasizes fun over realism, and works hard to ensure that bad choices seldom have really permanent consequences. There's an intriguing hierarchy about the costs of changing different aspects of your character or 'toon. Changing the color of your clothes is cheap (and surprisingly powerful), changing the style of your costume is more expensive, changing your proportions is very expensive, and changing your gender or profession pretty much involves building a new character.
  • There's not much flirting, but costume contests are a big deal.
  • Female-presenting toons are quite likely to be vociferous opponents of planned changes to rebalance the game by reducing ('nerfing') some attack powers and encouraging less dependence on pure bruising.
  • A big change projected for the next edition is some sort of customizable home base, which will add a home decor component to the clothes shopping. It's interesting (but fun) to go out to fight street crime in order to Do Good and also to get the credit you need for that cool new hair color.
  • The art crew has managed to build a visual character generator that can manage the whole range of superheroes, from square-jawed caped crusaders of the 30's to manga schoolgirls from Mars.

Bolter and Grusin recoined the term "remediation " to describe the recreation of a work in a new medium. Remediation is important in the growth of all new media.

One of the best essays I've seen about remediation is Charles Rosen's "Playing Music: The Lost Freedom", which just appeared in the New York Review of Books. It's a review -- or, rather. a response and elaboration, of Robert Philip's study of Performing Music in the Age of Recording , an examination of the way that recording has changed the performance of music in the last century.

The challenge here is to disentangle fashion from the impact of technology. Musicians today play more precisely, in part, because a mistake in the concert hall is inconsequential while we might hear a recorded mistake dozens of times. For the same reason, recording favors more cautious tempi: a daringly-fast movement or a startling, dramatic ritardando works better in performance, where it may surprise and delight, than frozen in the archives.

Occasional mistakes in performance do not matter that much in the concert hall, but they are always hard to stomach on a record when one is listening to it for the tenth time. I wince in advance at the very few wrong notes in the scherzo of Rachmaninoff's magnificent performance of Chopin's B-flat minor Sonata, or at the place in Horowitz's first recording of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto where he skips two bars and has to keep repeating a figure until the orchestra catches up.
Oct 05 18 2005


Roger Ebert is right when we reports that the atmosphere and language of David Auburn's Proof is exactly right, that when a professor delivers a eulogy he speaks precisely as professors on such occasions do, and that when a theoretical physicist flirts at a mathematician's wake, he speaks and drinks the way theoretical physicists do.

What's odd, though, and what seems not to have been much discussed, is that Proof can't really be about the discovery of a great proof. The proof is obviously a stand-in for a play, or perhaps a novel: we're not talking about mathematicians here, but writers.

We know this because, in this play (and now in this very fine movie), people care deeply about who created the proof but aren't much exercised about the proof itself. They care about the trappings -- publications, conferences, interviews -- that the proof could bring, but nobody seems to mention that an important new proof must open new avenues for research, new horizons for investigation. Even if the conclusion has been anticipated, the novel methods used to achieve the proof must provide many new opportunities. We should, in short, be in a terrible rush to find out what the proof lets us do today that nobody could do before.

We also have a worrisome and false note when Catherine, who claims to have written the proof and might not be deluded, expects her new lover to accept her authorship because she asserts it -- to believe her, to have faith. They're both mathematicians and they're both grownups, and faith has nothing to do with it. What evidence can we adduce? How can we prove it? A subtext here, running against a tacked-on theme of the play, is that the beautiful, emotionally-fragile, lovable and very female Catherine is really not fit to be a real mathematician: women, after all, want to be believed for their own sake, and if this unfits them for the brutal world of math and science, vive la differénce.

That said, it's pitch-perfect and place-perfect, and the film is wonderfully acted.

A good movie. See it. Probably the best science fiction movie since The Matrix. And, while you could still make a case for the original Star Wars if you wanted, this is probably the best space opera to date.

Jim Bumgardner has built an intriguing visualization of a few thousand science fiction covers.

If you live between Baltimore and Montreal, you might want to drop everything and trek up to Boston to see Carmen at the A.R.T.

As you know, I don't say this often. It's an unusual performance.

What director Dominique Serrand has done, here, is to trim Carmen back to theatrical proportions, to discover the drama within the opera. The score is adapted for two pianos, which means that the chorus can be trimmed back to three or six -- and the performance can be staged in moderate house like the Loeb. Above all, it means the production can focus on acting -- accepting the music as Shakespearean productions accept the poetry.

Christina Baldwin (Carmen). Photo: Michal Daniel.

I don't read A.R.T. reviews before the performance -- I'm a subscriber, for years we attended the first preview, I don't want to spend my time in the theater arguing with a critic, and especially not with the Globe critics who tend to suffer from a severe case of second city-itis. But Ed Siegel lost his head for the production:

It helps to have a force of nature in the title role. You might hear a better Carmen at some point in your life than Christina Baldwin, but you'll have to search far and wide to see a better one. She takes over the Loeb Drama Center stage the way her character captures men's hearts, so assured of her power and beauty that she knows only death can stand in her way. In a performance as sensual as it is self-confident, Baldwin is by herself worth the price of admission. There's nothing wrong with her voice, either. It's strong, true, and able to strike directly at the heart of whatever Bizet and director Dominique Serrand put in her path.

So, take advantage of the fares from BWI and Philly, or hop in the car. Closes October 8.

by Edward Gibbon

It's not so much the history, which has largely been superseded, nor the topic, which is spectacularly fashionable but politically facile, but rather the glorious and unforgettable language that makes Gibbon worth a long and comfortable visit. Gibbon is wonderful, by turns censorious and sympathetic but always showing a keen wit and a liberal interest in every facet of antiquity. He studies to be witty and seldom can resist a good story, and he carefully weighs facts and character alike.

If you enjoy history, and if the cadences of the periodic sentence do not fill your spirit with fear or your mind with confusion, do not make the mistake of waiting for your 49th birthday to make Gibbon's acquaintance.

Great fun.

Jewish people aren't crazy about dogs.; A dog will bite you, chase you, bark. And Jews have been bitten, chased, and barked at for so long that, in the end, they prefer cats. -- Joann Sfar, The Rabbi's Cat
Soon after his entrance into the palace of Constantinople he had occasion for the service of a barber. An officer, magnificently dressed, immediately presented himself. 'It is a barber,' exclaimed the prince, with affected surprise, 'that I want, and not a receiver-general of the finances.' He questioned the man concerning the profits of his employment, and was informed that, besides a large salary and some valuable perquisites, he enjoyed a daily allowance for twenty servants and as many horses. A thousand barbers, a thousand cupbearers, a thousand cooks were distributed in the several offices of luxury, and the number of eunuchs could be compared only with the insects of a summer's day.

by Lucia Leão

A collection of new media articles, including contributions by Lev Manovich, Adrian Miles, Peter Lunenfeld, Howard Rheingold, and me.

I woke up this morning, an hour before dawn, thinking about the weekend's correspondence from Tinderbox beta testers.

Lately, almost every problem report has been incomplete and insufficient, lacking crucial details. We're spending nearly as much time writing followup email as we are fixing code.

It really bugs me.

Peter Merholz critiques a Nielsen Alertbox, finding Jakob's praise for a new Microsoft Office feature set premature and possibly self-interested. Of great interest, he observes generally that user-centered design habitually casts the user as victim.

The writings promoting user-centered design theory and practice overwhelmingly cast the user as a victim, subjected to the evils of a system over which they have no control. By studying these victims, the heroic user-centered designer can provide a far superior system that takes into account the actual work practices of the users.

It's a good thing that a fresh shipment of eyelighters is about to arrive at Eastgate. My Eyelighter is headed to Baton Rouge, where Eastgate's Dr. Meryl Cohen is suddenly headed for post-Katrina relief work. She was summoned down south with almost no notice, and expects that hands-free Eyelighter to come in handy....

Lots of Light!

Eastgate's new Eyelighters really took off last week.

I don't really know why. Theyr'e cool, sure, and they fill a need. And, when you think about it, they're new: that bright white LED is something you just couldn't have a few years ago, not for all the tea in China.

But we sold the whole first shipment on day zero -- off the pre-announcement here on my blog. And the second shipment sold out in days, too. No worries: shipment three is already on its way.

Nothing quite beats swapping a comma and a quotation mark, early on a holiday morning.

Thanks to all the folks who wrote to tell me that this page was mangled. Turned out that, in my rush to tell you about finally watching a fresh movie last night, I wrote

^do(good",Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow")

When you're looking for it, it's easy to see that the quotation mark should come after that pesky comma. Oh, well.

Friday's little dinner went nicely, I thought, with a combination of experiments for the Fall and a reprise of some of summer's biggest hits.

  • Smoky chipotle picadillo, in romaine-leaf packets
  • Squash soup, garnished with smoked paprika
  • Planked salmon with mango citrus salsa, salt-roasted potatoes
  • Chocolate pecan tarte

The soup recipe (Boston Globe) called for six cups of chicken stock. My stock supply is terribly low, and it being a Friday (and my schedule being already deep in the weeds at breakfast) there was no time for proper stock. So I grabbed a couple of boxes of low-salt, free-range chicken stock from the store, hacked up some spare drumsticks I had in the freezer, and roasted the bones with some carrots and celery. On the range, I aggressively browned the meat and carmelized the onion. Everything went into the pot for about 90 minutes of simmering. Skim, strain, hope for the best.

Prepping the leftover soup, Linda garnished it with parsley and with some crumbled cheddar I'd forgotten to serve on Friday. Very nice.

Elin points out that the Flickr community is in the process of rediscovering an old hypertext maxim: Multivalence is not a vice.

Tags are words, and words don't mean one thing. Pages don't have a function, so you can't tag them concisely or accurately or sincerely. Pieces of pages don't mean one thing, either: the fact I offer you is intertwingled with my motives for offering the fact and your motivation for belief.

Elin also observes that the voting dynamic is itself gameable:

A common survival tactic is to be nice to people on your side of the water, yet merciless, brutal and cruel to the rest of the world. This means that if you post your photo after 6:00 pm, the Europeans will already be sound asleep while your friends (whom you've gained a lot of goodwill from by leaving sweet little comments on their photos) will help you save your precious contributions. Psychology and Strategy combined: When the Europeans rise and shine, it's too late - they've lost their chance to delete your work.

What contemporary political figure will make a better subject for a grand historical drama than Karl Rove?

Not Nixon: there's not much you can do with such a small, petty, angry man, cornered at last. Not Reagan, passing long, hazy days in the Oval Office, scheming to get an extra chocolate chip cookie. Not Clinton: there's just no drama in good government tarnished by personal weakness; not even Gibbon could find the story line though the third century of the Empire offers plenty of Clintonesque examples. And not Bush, who seems to lack either the weight or the awareness you'd need for drama.

At Harvard, I once played Kingmaker with an undergraduate woman whose ancestor was Richard Neville.

Linda has class on Thursday nights, which left me plenty of time to get a head start on tonight's picadillo. For our late dinner, I'd planned some chilles rellenos, which I expected to be light and simple.


It turns out that, upon actually reading the Bayless recipe, this involves making delicate incisions in each jalopeño, then parboiling the peppers in a sugar, salt, and vinegar bath, stuffing each with cheese, and then freezing the peppers to restore their texture. Next, the peppers are dredged in flour, coated with an airy batter of egg whites, flour, and separately-beaten yolks, quickly fried, and finished in the over.

After the parboiling, Bayless instructs you to "carefully remove the seeds and ribs" of each little pepper. I took this instruction to mean that a careless cook might tear the pepper, rendering it unsuitable for stuffing. Linda's first bite indicated, however, that the author actually meant, "exercise care to ensure that you remove every seed and rib, lest your tired wife exclaim that dinner is too, too hot to eat." Fortunately, it was just the one pepper.

Here's the winner of an interesting contest: take a Hollywood film and cut a new trailer for it -- in a completely different genre. Robert Ryang won with a fresh cut of The Shining as a romantic comedy.

This was so convincing that I was wondering to myself, 'How could I have missed this unsual Jack Nicholson movie? And wasn't there a Steven King novel with the same title?'

A very interesting hypertextual exercise.

Gibbon's footnotes are justly famous. Here's a footnote to a passage describing how Commodus wastefully slaughtered rare animals in the arena.

1. Commodus killed a camelopardalis or giraffe, the tallest, the most gentle, and the most useless of the large quadrupeds. This singular animal, a native only of the interior parts of Africa, has not been seen in Europe since the revival of letters, and though M. de Buffon has endeavoured to describe, he has not ventured to delineate, the giraffe. (v. 1 p. 107)

New and cool: Eastgate's got a shipment of eyelighters, a featherweight (10g), ear-mounted flashlight with an ultrabright white LED. Perfect for long plane trips, or reading in bed, and ideal for working effectively in a darkened lecture hall.

Dantz just paid someone a lot of money to send out a press release, announcing Retrospect 6.1. Since we rely on Retrospect for our backups, and since Retrospect has been struggling a bit with Tiger, I went to grab the update right away.

The update wasn't actually available on the site.

Ouch. Stuff happens, sure. But the core competence of a backup vendor has got to be reliability. You're counting on them to foresee all the things that might go wrong, and to bail you out when the rainy day comes.

Tim Bray says what lots of people must be thinking :

ESR has cracked up. It’s kind of sad, Eric Raymond was one of my major influences with his essays on the culture and economics of Open Source. I didn’t always agree, but they were closely-argued and made you really think hard. Now he stands on his blog platform and argues that we’re in danger of surrendering to Al-Qaeda because of... wait for it... after-effects of the work done by Department V of the KGB.

This is the dark side of blogging. If you confine your weblog to a narrow, safe range of topics, you falsify the whole. Worse, you risk writing about pleasant songs or exciting movies or soft, friendly kittens when you should have been taking a stand against ignorance and evil. Puppies and sex and cooking are all nice, but someday someone will ask you "which side were you on", and you don't want to say that you missed it, that you didn't take sides because you were writing about potatoes.

So, no, the answer is not Safe Blogging, nor is the answer to Write Less.

But here's a hazard and a warning that all bloggers -- especially those of us who have a significant audience -- worry about on cold winter nights. We don't talk about it much. We don't have panels on it at Webzine or Blogtalk, we don't spend sessions discussing it at Blogwalk. It's an uninvited guest, always hovering at the table.

What will happen if we write somethingthat is really, deeply, wrong? And write it over and over again? How will we mend things, afterward? Can they be mended?

The first day of Webzine was very good. Day two was less so. I waited a week to write this, lest my writing reflect to heavily a momentary mood, a bit of jet lag, a tad too much partying.

Or maybe not. On day two, attention turned more toward politics and business, and the quality of the discussion, in my opinion, went south. San Francisco is a special place, and this was a very Bay Area conference and nearly everyone shared a basic political orientation and outlook. None of the political panelists seemed to notice that the right can use the same tools they've developed against them -- not merely by lifting plans from their web sites but by spoofing their messages and hacking their culture.

There were rousing assertions that the people should go out and use graffiti to reclaim the street from corporation and state, and then laments for the privatization of public space. If we're taking back ownership of the street, aren't we privatizing, too?

The romantic view of weblogs, oddly, overran the business panel : everyone seemed to believe that if you're a good person and really care about the customer, then the money is going to pour in. It did pour in for these guys -- Live Journal, Cafe Press, Hot or Not. That's nice. Others still have to work hard on margins and ratios, on pricing and marketing and fulfillment.

If we believe that passion and caring for the customer and your own personal wonderfulness are all that's required to build a thriving web business, doesn't that argue that all the people who didn't sell their startups to Google or Yahoo are simply scoundrels, unworthy or uncaring or accursed?

A big issue for the weblog economy should be this: are weblogs actually earning what Google is charging for Ad Words?

No one, I think, really knows: the bidding war for ad words is currently a greater fool's paradise, and bloggers (and Google, of course) are reaping the rewards. But are Google's advertisers receiving value? If not, that revenue stream is going to shrink -- and the shrinkage will siphon off the greater part of the weblog economy.

For dinner after Serenity:

I worked from Bourdain's recipe for the potatoes, which is pretty much Heidi Swanson's but omits the garlic. My problem was breaking through the crust, which was almost impenetrable. Should the crust be thin? Or do I need a better blade? Let me know....

Lost in the President's assurances that his Superme Court nominee is a good, churchgoing, religious woman and his critic's fears that she might not vote appropriately on punishing pregnancy is a simple question: can anyone believe that Harriet Miers is the American best suited for this job? Is this the most eminent, intelligent, and just-minded man or woman in all the nation?

I've long thought that it was the secret wish of the Republican radicals to fill government with non-entities and incompetents, hoping that eventually people would rise up and overthrow the idiots to install the charismatic monarch they would prefer.

Who should be nominated? An older person, I think -- someone who has a long and distinguished record, someone worth our trust. A person who has known responsibility, and who has lived in public for long enough that they command our respect and our trust. A conservative, perhaps, so we need not fear that they will overthrow the rule of law. Perhaps a conservative Democrat, so all can see that the choice was based on merit, not interest.

Instead, we have this foolish, romantic indulgence of choosing people with little or no record of accomplishment but lots of powerful friends. Shame.

I've long argued that weblog comments are not worth the risk -- that they inevitably devolve into damaging, acrimonious, and expensive flame wars. (Links at the end of this post) I continue to think comments and blogs are a bad mix: if you want to respond to a blog, write the response in your own blog.

If you still want to have comments, or manage a forum or wiki or other social software system, I'd strongly recommend a careful study of this long (and growing) thread at eGullet, discussing The Seasoning of a Chef, a recent memoir by Doug Psaltis. (Via Meg Hourihan)

This is a spectacular accomplishment: a managed flamewar that appears to be burning under control, despite a host of factors that I would expect to leave the thread a scorched wasteland:

  • Participants post using handles, rather than full names. This usually leads to juvenile and irresponsible writing.
  • The stakes are high: the controversy stems from questions whether accusations made in the book are untrue. The reputations of the author, of the high-profile chefs who endorsed his book, and of the famous restaurants and chefs whom he criticises, are all at stake.
  • Famous people are participating in an open forum with an hoi polloi (some of whom may themselves be famous people writing anonymously). Tony Bourdain. Michael Ruhlman, The author himself. The notables are themselves the source of much of the fire, and have sometimes been censured by the moderators.
  • The moderators are active -- including frequent threats that posts will be edited or deleted.
  • Multiple moderators participate actively in the discussion. They do not present a unified front and they take sides in the argument: indeed, two moderators have taken opposite sides in the controversy.

Yet, somehow, this controversy has raged through two weeks and 13 pages without passing the boundaries of civility.

I'm taking a very liberal view of civility here: the underlying question is whether author Doug Psaltis was deceitful or not. These were, literally, fighting words, said in public and soon picked up by major newspapers and magazines. Still, nobody has violated Godwin's law and called someone else a Nazi, and I fancy most of the participants might eventually be willing to speak to each other.

I think that a the management of this fight might repay careful study.

Dave Winer has announced Reading Lists for RSS. Unfortunately, I'm not at all sure what these are. We'd probably rush to support them in Tinderbox, if people added us to the loop.